Trump Can’t Force Himself on the House

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CBC News: The National / YouTube Trump cancels Nancy Pelosi 39 s 1548071471.jpg...
CBC News: The National / YouTube

You may have read an article here on Herr Gropingfury’s latest Trumpertantrum: Still seething over his big speech being canceled, Trump threatens to show up anyway. I’m following up with this article because I want to focus on one particular aspect of that piece: Trump cannot force himself on the House (and yes, the phrasing is deliberate). No captive audience forced to listen to his drivel, no Speaker forced to listen to Republican applause as he scolds her in full view of the world.

Although I think Trump’s tweet

is ambiguous as to whether he plans to go up to the Hill without an invitation, it is a distinctly possible reading. But if so, he won’t be allowed to do it.

The Constitution does not describe how the State of the Union is to be delivered; it says that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient. . . .” (Art II. Sect. 3), and as we all know by now, from Jefferson until Wilson, presidents sent Congress an annual State of the Union in writing, not in person.

But while presidents have been coming to the Hill to deliver the SOTU to a joint session of Congress since 1913, they can’t just simply show up and demand to be heard. They have to be invited. Here is the text of Speaker Pelosi’s  Jan. 4 invitation to Trump; note how precisely it is worded:

Dear Mr. President:

The Constitution established the legislative, executive and judicial branches as co-equal branches of government, to be a check and balance on each other. The Constitution also calls for the President to “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.”

In the spirit of our Constitution, I invite you to deliver your State of the Union address before a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday, January 29, 2019 in the House Chamber.

I look forward to welcoming you to the Congress.

Sincerely,

NANCY PELOSI
Speaker of the House www.speaker.gov/…

That first sentence is anything but accidental; she is reminding Trump (and McConnell, not at all by the way) that Congress is an equal branch of government, not a part of the Trump Organization.

William Murphy, an American history professor, makes this point in his analysis of the current situation:

By tradition and protocol, the President cannot address a joint session of Congress without an invitation from the Speaker of the House. There have been cases of past presidents sparring with Speakers over the timing of the SOTU address, but these things usually end up getting worked out.

However, since the invitation is at the Speaker’s discretion, it is the Speaker’s right to revoke it, or ask that the address be rescheduled or postponed. Congress does not work for, and is not subservient to, the President. The Constitution makes the executive and legislative branches co-equal branches of government. The President cannot “order” Congress to do anything it does not want to do. www.quora.com/…

Interestingly, he adds this later edit to his article:

Carter Moore’s research into the House rules reveals that the House could not, under its own rules, deny the President admittance to the House chamber if he arrived, but he would not be able to seek recognition to address the chamber without an invitation. It’d be a crazy spectacle if he showed up hoping to address a joint session without invitation. [emphasis added]

So in theory, Trump could storm into the House, but he would almost certainly be walking into a dark and empty chamber, as the House does not normally meet in the evenings. As a number of comments to Hunter’s diary have noted, the Speaker controls the lights, the microphones, and the cameras (as the Democrats have learned the hard way). Trump would only embarrass himself, not the Democrats, if he tries to go to the House without an invitation, something his staff would be sure to point out to him. (And just think of the Secret Service’s reaction to Trump wanting to walk into a dark room.)

There is a parallel in British history. In 1642, Charles I and his troops stormed into the House of Commons, looking for 5 men he considered traitors. The men had earlier fled, and the Speaker refused to tell the King where they were. Charles himself then fled London, and his actions started the civil war that ended with his execution. Ever since, when the monarch arrives at Parliament to speak to the Commons, she demands entry three times and is denied, after which the MPs go to the House of Lords to hear her speak there. The Monarch is never allowed to enter Commons.

Now, I said above that Pelosi’s letter asking Trump to delay coming to the Hill until the security agencies that protect him there are funded was intended not just for Trump but for McConnell. He got at least part of the message, since Trump’s Saturday DACA non-offer appears to have been made at McConnell’s urging:

The calculus for the majority leader changed as the shutdown has dragged on, people familiar with his thinking said, pointing to Pelosi’s letter to Trump on Wednesday suggesting he postpone his Jan. 29 State of the Union address until the government reopens. That moment, the sources said, convinced McConnell that Pelosi would not negotiate without further incentives.

McConnell spoke to Trump Thursday afternoon, asking the president to add legislative sweeteners for Democrats, and Trump agreed, the official said. www.washingtonpost.com/…

The key to ending the shutdown is, as it has always been, McConnell. If he lets the bills sent from the House come to a vote, they will pass, and then Trump will be put on the spot — a place he hates to be in. What I’m going to say now is based on my view of McConnell, which is that he is a smart tactician (even if mainly as an obstructionist), an experienced politician who can read the public and his opposition, and whose goal is staying Majority Leader of the Senate — everything he does is done with that single goal in mind. (Well, and getting rich, but his wife handles that part.) So:

I think McConnell has decided that Trump is becoming more of a liability to him than an asset. He had to have known that (1) the Democrats would not accept the DACA offer, so it was a non-starter, and (2) the base would turn on Trump if he made any concessions at all, but especially on DACA. In short, I think that McConnell deliberately maneuvered Trump into a position where he is now worse off than he was before.

McConnell did not do this out of any good motive; he did it because the government shutdown is starting to hurt the Senators up for re-election that he needs in order to sustain his majority. (It is also possible that the impact of the shutdown may be affecting his own chances in 2020.) He wants Trump so weakened that when McConnell does allow the Senate to vote on the House measures and get the government open again, Trump will have no choice but to go along.

Pelosi’s letter asking Trump to wait until the government is reopened probably reminded McConnell of his past dealings with her and how tough she is, and also gave him his opening to go after Trump.

There have been stories that Trump may deliver the SOTU in the Senate chamber. Sen. Rand Paul has suggested it, and the White House is supposedly considering it, but as of this moment I haven’t seen any further movement on this front. It’s not clear if McConnell as majority leader can invite Trump on his own or if the Senate has to vote on it, as he is not a Constitutional officer, unlike the Speaker. (A planned invitation to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to address a joint session in 1987 was dropped after some Senators objected; see this article generally on the topic.)

To be blunt, Madam (not Madame!) Speaker is one woman Trump can’t force himself on.

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